Interview with Suzan Postel of “The Body Sings”

Here’s a treat for all of us as we begin 2017:  An interview with master Somatic educator and performer, Suzan Postel, of The Body Sings. I have had the opportunity to work with Suzan as her client, by Facetime, and am looking forward to continuing with her this month.  We have referred students to each other and find ourselves in some similar life stages right now, which is why I so appreciate who she is as a person as much as her professional experiences. Enjoy!

Cate:  Please give us a brief overview of your background and how you came to somatic education.

Suzan:  The exploration of body, mind, and creative self-expression has always been an integral part of my life. I started dancing at age 4 and have been singing and playing music as long as I can remember. I grew up in NYC, in an extended family of practitioners in the arts and sciences. My father was the rare breed of surgeon who believed that being a good doctor meant being involved in all aspects of his patients’ healing, not just being a good technician; my mother is a painter, who also loves playing music; and my brother is a singer/ songwriter/ guitarist with whom I’ve enjoyed a lifelong musical collaboration. I grew up as a modern dancer, and sang everything from classical art songs to Joni Mitchell.

I entered the music theatre world somewhat by accident when I attended an open chorus call, solely as an exercise in performance practice, and was offered the leading role in Pirates of Penzance. At the time I was in workshops for a dance company being developed by my favorite teacher from Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Center, but he encouraged me to do the show, saying ‘it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity – take it!’ That experience presented an answer to my dilemma of choosing between singing and dancing, and I went on to perform on Broadway and around the globe.

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I began practicing Pilates as a young dancer and was offered a part time teaching job just after 9/11, when the climate of uncertainty impacted NYC theatre. Despite my initial concern that teaching would conflict with my performing career, it quickly became yet another passion and afforded me the freedom to pursue new creative paths.

I moved to LA in 2013, where I have been singing with many artists including Ben Harper, Michael Buble, and my brother Steve Postell’s all-star band, Night Train Music Club. I maintain my teaching business in my private studio, at clients’ homes, and worldwide via Skype and Facetime.”

 

Suzan with Rudolph Nureyev in The King and I.  Postel as Tuptim.

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Postel as Maria in West Side Story:

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I’ve always explored numerous modalities to maintain my physical and vocal health, including Alexander Technique, Feldenkreis, The Franklin Method, Ideokineses, Yoga, Continuum, Thompson Bodywork, Physical Therapy, and Mindfulness Meditation. I eventually learned that many of the healing methods I was drawn to were forms of ‘Somatic Education’, a term coined by Thomas Hanna in the early 70s, when the view of physiology and psychology as separate entities was increasingly being challenged by the holistic movement. Derived from the Greek word “soma”, meaning body, Hanna described “Somatic” as “the body experienced from within”.

“Somatic Education” is the process of bringing awareness to what is happening unconsciously in the body in order to develop more efficient movement patterns. I incorporated elements of all of my somatic training into my Pilates teaching, and tailored my approach to the individual client. Working extensively in studios and gyms before moving to private practice also exposed me to a wide variety of both traditional and mind/body approaches to training; and the deeper, more transformative effects of the latter further confirmed my inclination towards somatic education.

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Fundamental to my development as a somatic practitioner was my nearly 20-year relationship with the innovative bodyworker Cathy Thompson, whose holistic approach to the voice, body and mind taught me that what I experienced as vocal issues were almost always in my body. When I started teaching Pilates we traded sessions every week until her untimely passing in 2008. In addition to the immeasurable wealth of knowledge Cathy imparted to me both through her hands and her ideas, teaching someone with such heightened body awareness freed me to rely less on my analytical brain and more on my intuition. This came strongly into play during her illness when, using micro-movements, guided breathing, and visualization, I was able to relieve her pain and, during a period of paralysis, help restore mobility. I was also involved in various ways with the writing of her book, which was recently completed by her brilliant daughter Tara, who continues to evolve her mothers’ work and remains my lifelong friend and collaborator. The book will be published in Spring 2017.

Cate: When did you discover Somatic Voicework™: The LoVetri Method, and why did it resonate with you?

Suzan: One night after seeing a performance in Brooklyn I rode the subway home with the wonderful artist Theo Bleckmann, and we got into a discussion about singing and the quest for vocal freedom. I explained that I had stopped taking lessons and was exploring on my own to find the more intrinsic connection between body and voice; starting with body release, transitioning to increasing the air stream, to adding sound on the air, all without introducing extraneous tension. Theo proceeded to tell me about his voice teacher, Jeanie LoVetri, describing the magical transformations he’d experienced and observed through her teaching, and I knew I had to try a session.

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Ten minutes into our first lesson I realized that not only did Jeanie perceive exactly what was happening in my voice, but she was bringing the same level of deep release I practiced in my bodywork to my throat and singing. Afterwards we talked for over an hour, and discovered much common ground in our experience as singers, our backgrounds in dance and somatic modalities, and our teaching philosophies. We began trading voice lessons with Pilates-based bodywork sessions, continually noting parallels between our approaches to the voice and body. Jeanie’s process-oriented, intuitive, and holistic method affirms my belief that somatic awareness is key to stopping the cycle of recurring imbalances, tensions, or injuries we experience in performance and in daily life.

Cate: Yes! I totally agree.  Can you describe some of the things you do in a session and what happens to a client’s practice and awareness. Why is this important and why should it matter to them?

Suzan: Let’s start with why it should matter. Over time our repetitive movements and postural patterns lead to muscular imbalances, and the resulting compensations take us further and further away from the optimal function of our bio-mechanical design. When certain muscle groups are over-worked and tight, there is a weakening in the antagonist muscles, which are designed to work synergistically. In addition, emotional traumas and physical injuries can be held in the tissues unless we bring them into conscious awareness and release them. Life imprints on the body, as well as the mind.

Cate: Hoo-boy, that is so true. Worth saying again “Life imprints on the body as well as the mind.”

Suzan: It is the nature of the mind and body to default to their familiar pathways; so changing an embedded unconscious pattern takes time and patience. Have you ever wondered why you can experience immediate relief in a session with a good massage therapist, but it’s only a matter of time before the issues return? Similarly, you may achieve wonderful results under the guidance of a talented teacher, but until you feel and can reproduce what happened in your own body, the temporary change will give way to your conditioned default. While this is frustrating, it’s actually embedded in our survival instinct to take the path of least resistance (what’s more familiar feels ‘easier’, even if it creates imbalance, physical pain or emotional discomfort). Simply “trying harder” will engage the same pathways unless we develop our sensory awareness of tension or holding patterns, learn to release those areas, and then wait to re-discover the experience of less effortful, natural function.

Cate: !

Suzan: Therefore, whether a client’s interest is in singing, fitness, or rehabilitation, I start by bringing more consciousness into the process of restoring more efficient, healthy function. After performing a movement or releasing unwanted tension we take a moment to check back in with the body so the brain and nervous system can assimilate what has changed. Once that becomes more familiar, the default will gradually shift towards this new, more desirable state, and we can progress from there. If instead I started with a bunch of exercises, while you may increase strength, flexibility, range, etc, you would perform them the same old way, increasing imbalances and the potential for injury.

For example, one of the first things I address with most clients is core strength and stability. ‘Core’ work is a current trend in the fitness world, but it can be poorly taught. If I gave you an abdominal exercise your body would likely default to the surface (rectus) abdominals and hip flexors, leaving your back vulnerable to strain. So we must first locate the deepest (transversus) abs, which are largely underutilized and can therefore be hard to feel. With increased awareness we can consciously deepen the work to develop strength, control and stability.

The transverse abdominals are also important in singing, as they connect directly to the diaphragm and act as secondary breathing muscles. Drawing on this support below the lungs helps maintain breath pressure without engaging muscles higher in the body that constrict the voice.

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Another fundamental of all body learning is experiencing posture not as a fixed, static pose, but rather as a dynamic relationship of parts within the whole structure, both at rest and in motion. The primary ingredient in the somatic process is being willing to be a beginner, allowing yourself to rediscover the innate experience of free movement and sound making. Be patient with yourself, as your body will revert to old patterns; but those moments of noticing are golden. You can’t change the body without first changing the mind.

Cate: Thank you, Suzan, for sharing your journey in Somatic Education!

Please contact Suzan directly HERE if you are interested in deepening your somatic experience via her workshops or online.  Every somatic educator must embody the work themselves before trying to pass it on or help others–it is the nature of the discipline and why all the great innovators of somatic education found their work through attempting to help themselves or their loved ones first.

Suzan Postel is a master educator for The Lovetri Institute for Somatic VoiceWork tm: The Lovetri Method fantastic Summer Program at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio.  July 22-30, 2017.

To find out more about Singing Voice Specialist/Voice Trainer/Somatic Educator Cate Frazier-Neely, please go HERE.

Invincible Summer Collage

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”― Albert Camus

This set of four is called “The Roofs of Rhone.”

Here’s the magazine page that provided inspiration:

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I picked out four roof views from this photo and drew stylized versions of those views:

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Then I went through boxes of my hand-painted collage papers and chose colors and patterns for each view.

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Tracing paper was used to create rough patterns from the drawings:

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I cut out a 5 x 5 inch piece of light-weight water color paper and begin collating the pattern. Here are a couple of views after some of the collage papers were glued in place.

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I took a fine-tipped black marker and architect’s stencil to ink in windows.

Then I took a 4 x 4 birch wood panel (from DickBlicks.com) and lightly scratched it with a pair of scissors. This roughs up the panel so that the glued paper adheres to the wood more firmly.roofs-of-rhone-a

The finished collage is glued to the birch panel and clothes pins secure it while it dries.

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Here’s all four panels of the Rhone Roofs drying:

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After the collages adhered to the birch panels, I turned them over and used an exacto knife to cut the excess paper off the collages. The panels were placed on a self-healing cutting mat before using the knife.

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After all four sides were cut evenly with the birch panels, I turned them back over and used an 18 kt gold leafing pen to outline the edges.

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Here they are before being tweaked and cleaned up a bit:

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I used sandpaper, paint, glue and the 18 k gold pen to tidy things up.

The final step was two coats of acrylic spray (with drying time in between each coat) and then the series is finished. They can be hung as a set of four, or framed as a collection.

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Creative Renewal: Five Responses to What Have You “Done” Lately?

The other day, as private students were passing each other in my small waiting room, I introduced them to each other. I usually introduce students to each other by way of cool tidbits. I said “Steven, meet Carolyn–she loves the American songbook and is a wonderful singer.”

“Carolyn, meet Steven, he is also a voice teacher and just happens to have won two Grammies!” Carolyn was duly impressed, and as the brief conversation unfolded to include when those Grammies were won and for what, (2008 and 2012) Carolyn said “well, that WAS a while ago. What have you done recently?”

Lordy, I know we are perceived as only as “good” as our last major accomplishment–that college appointment, performance or tour, workshop taught, media article or pounds lost, but this comment really got under my skin. The monster that is the World Wide Web reenforces this mind-set every second of every day.

It is a mindset of judging others based on what they are churning out, as if that is the golden measure of skill, worthiness, integrity and tenacity. We live, not only in a violent, rape culture, but one that pays surface appreciation for the results of creativity and collaboration without valuing the time required for both. That judgement of others is a resounding and crippling judgement of ourselves. JUDGEMENT KILLS CREATIVITY.

As a life-long Creative, I live with this knowledge every day.

It is a mindset that is reenforced in academia to the “nth” degree.

“She hasn’t done anything since she released that album 2 years ago.”

“He must be getting old because I haven’t seen anything about him in years.”

“He won a couple of Grammies but hasn’t done much since then.”

This attitude means “she/he isn’t relevant anymore/has lost steam/insert other moronic conclusion here.” As if the artist/teacher is a pampered cow, for others to milk and live off of.

This attitude reflects the hungry monster of consuming, consuming, consuming, and also the endless self-promotion and social media feed as part of the “cult of personality” we love. We have a presidential candidate that has risen in prominence solely because of his skills in all those areas.

We are good at that here in the United States. We are a nation of Pac-Men and Pac-Women, eating and consuming and demanding endless loops of SPLASH! to fill our empty, nervous spaces.

So here are five exampled of responses to when someone asks you “What Have You Done Since Then?” or perhaps, more if the person is more enlightened, “What Are You Working On Now?”

  1. I am researching ways to cope more efficiently and joyfully with a chronic health issue. It is taking a lot of time and money, but what I have found out is—and this relates to my field because—
  2. I have sustained a free lance performing and teaching career, where I actually supported myself financially for (x) many years,–have you ever done that?–and am looking for ways to streamline my operation so I can have more time for (x).
  3.  I am writing a series of articles on (x) to help people who are (x)
  4.  I’ve been teaching, performing and caring for a family for (x) years, and have been constantly treading this super-human balancing act. As in agriculture, sometimes fields have to be left fallow to renew, and I am letting some of my fields lie fallow to renew by x, y, z.
  5.  I am working with a consultant to combine my skills in music, teaching and yoga–which are now hot topics but I have the experience of combining them for 30 years–into a more modern brand that can compete with other, less experienced but technologically-savy generations, as long as I want to work.

How else can you verbalize your current status to reflect some of what is required to live life-long creativity and relevance in the marketplace? Personally, I am not that interested in hearing from artist-educators under the age of 35.  And I am also not that interested in hearing from people who have never been a care giver for another human being or financially had to support a family. As Kathleen Battle said, “Anyone can have a career up to age 35. After that, we’ll see what you are really made of.”

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Vocal Master Class #9: Beliefs that Hinder Singing

In this next post for Somatic Education, Functional Voice Training and Vital Singing…Connecting the Dots, “Alex” is an amalgam of two students that I found to be exceptionally challenging to work with, but ultimately rewarding. There were many moments when I struggled with “do I keep this person in my studio or admit defeat and pass them on?”  It is a question every voice teacher asks from time to time if we are honest.

Both singers are tenors and sing classical music. Both singers have inner belief systems that greatly hinder their singing and sometimes make it difficult to work with them.

Somatic Education

Alex #1 harbors the belief that he is just a few voice lessons away from being able to sing perfectly at every choral rehearsal and every performance because “others seem to be able to do so.” When I first became aware of this belief,  I said,

“Expecting to experience The Ineffable every time you open your mouth to sing, every time you practice, rehearse or perform, is setting yourself up for disappointment…”

To which he replied with the very hilarious

“well, maybe that is why I keep experiencing the F-able when I sing!”

Singers seem to be the only musicians who don’t understand that building a vocal instrument to sing the music you want to sing, and keeping it in shape over a lifetime, is a different task than developing musical skills and being a musician. I highly recommend H. Wesley Balk’s books Performing Power and The Complete Singer-Actor, which explores this idea from a musical theater singer/actor point of view.

Alex #1 views his world through an Asperger’s lens. Among other things, he sees many things very literally, very black and white. He started studying singing with me after I had taught some vocal workshops for one of his choirs. He decided he wanted to try to develop more kinesthetic awareness and was fascinated with the concept of functional voice training, which he had not been introduced to in 25 years of studying singing.

So for the past 2 years, every other week, we have explored elements of Body Mapping and Andover Education. He does not like much else of what I have tried, but this method appeals to him. (Check out Barbara Conable’s What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body if it is not already a staple in your pedagogy library.)

We have had frank discussions of what it means to “balance” vs. “blend” in choral rehearsals, and I repeatedly have had to remind him that he takes on too much responsibility in choral rehearsals. He feels that because he can sight-read anything, including complicated scores in other languages, he should lead others. For example, if 3 tenors of 6 are absent from rehearsal, he personally takes it on  to make up volume, and ends up shoving air through his vocal folds and fatigues quickly. His belief system causes him to abandon what he has learned. He understands the idea that in choral singing, one should be able to hear oneself, but not louder than those around you. This Ideal drove him crazy until I explained that the concept only works if everyone in the choir is of equal vocal ability. If your whole section is made up of people barely putting out anything, you can sing softly and still sound like a trumpet. When someone is singing next to you like a nasal brass band, there is no way you can hear yourself. “Loud” will always be heard over “lovely.”

When a singer’s personal belief system hinders somatic education from taking root after 2 years of consistent work, it’s time to pass the student to another somatic educator and/or call in extra help. I told him to bring this up in his counseling–this basic trait to feel personally responsible for things that are out of his control. It is often a fear-based control response that requires great courage to look at and begin to heal with new behaviors and thoughts. I am also helping him find a low-key meditation instructor so he can begin to learn the art of mindfulness through another manner of working. He is resistant to studying other forms of somatic education or I would have him study with other somatic educators. Staying in the moment, focusing on what his body is experiencing, is actually very frightening to him, as he does not trust his body, and therein lies a dilemma for someone who wants to sing.

This is actually a huge topic, because it has to do with physical health and life experiences, cultural and religious attitudes. It turns singing lessons into a healthy path for challenging beliefs that are getting in your way.  He liked my suggestions and we’ll see how he gets on over the next few months.

Functional Voice Training

Alex #2 is a super-controlled, intense personality who is very friendly with a great sense of humor. He has three children, a wife with MS and works full-time in the corporate world, so it is amazing to me that he has made time for voice lessons consistently. He studied singing in college and loves musical theater and sacred Jewish music. He has a history of severe sinus and throat issues, including terrible allergies and multiple procedures to remove nasal polyps. His health history, plus a very driven personality, plus his concept of tenors belting out high notes, all contributed to his habit of shoving excessive quantities of air through his throat. He carried massive tongue tension in speech and in singing.

His is a case where we could get his air flow regulated and his throat freed up with the slow work of functional exercises (including lots of various kinds of semi-occlusions and registration development and balancing,) but two weeks later, he often would be back to where he started. His identification with being  a “go-getter” and “the rock of his family” was so bound up with the feelings of muscle dysfunction, that letting go of the throat to develop another coordination made him feel at a deep level that he was giving up on the energy to live his life the way he felt he needed to do. And yet, he knew his singing needed to be easier.

If you look up YouTube teaching on “tongue tension,” you can find lots of exercises for tongue tension. But in Somatic Voicework™: The Lovetri Method, Ms. Lovetri maintains that tongue tension is often the result of poor laryngeal and vocal fold function, and that separate tongue exercises do little to teach the tongue how to do its part in free singing. Alex #2 had studied with a practitioner of a very popular method which had tied him up even further because it asked him to consciously create muscle patterns in the larynx and throat. They had him start with tongue-release stretches, and then create these patterns. What a mess.

The body is one continuous craniosacral facial web. Restriction anywhere can and does cause symptoms, often several body segments away from the location of the tongue itself. I find that specific, slow massaging of the fascia of the tongue and throat, which includes the back of the neck, coupled with functional vocal exercises, to be more useful with consistent results. (some of you may be interested in The McClosky Institute of Voice, which is compatible with Somatic Education principles.)  I also got Alex #2 into regular cranialsacral therapy and body massage.  He took it upon himself to work with an integrative health specialist on adrenal fatigue, hormonal balance and nutrition, which frankly, made all the difference in the world.

Alex #2 studied with me regularly–every other week–for almost 7 years–SEVEN YEARS!– before the air flow pattern and tongue tension issues were transformed to consistently freer singing. But kudos to him for not giving up when most people would have because of family and work, and kudos to me for having the patience of the Biblical Job! Alex #2 now sings as a lay cantor in his synagogue and enjoys singing legit musical theater repertoire. He’s also singing with his high school alumnae choir.

If you teach voice primarily in academic music programs, or even work mostly with children and teenagers, chances are good that you don’t see students like  Alex 1 and 2 in your studio. As people age, their belief systems and health patterns become “fixed,” unless they are tenacious about learning to change and grow. This is obviously complicated by the number of responsibilities one has, as well as inner-attitudes, personal expectations and mental and physical health.

All we want to do is sing and enjoy our singing! But the ability to do so is very tied to every facet of our being.  Not everyone should try to sing professionally, and as Rossini said “the vocal cords have to have been kissed by God” in order to do so. But singing is part of living well–everyone needs some movement, some exercise, some beauty and the support of a tribe to connect body to soul, the stuff of a well-lived life.

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Vocal Master Class #8 May I Be Franck?

This week’s post on Functional Voice Training, Somatic Education and Vital Singing…Connecting the Dots, features a manner of working that is dependent on the student being both musical and a musician. Musical means there is expression in the voice, (phrasing, colors, emotional connection, etc.) regardless of technical and personal issues, and a musician means discerning in what they are able hear with some developed skills in place.

If you are a teacher of singing, it comes as no surprise to you the number of people who sing, or have studied singing for years, that are not musical. Obviously singing benefits everyone, but as a teacher of singing, know your own limits on how many of those kind you take on or you will lose your own magic after awhile….

Melinda was a 17 year-old soprano who brought the “Pie Jesu” solo from the choral setting of Faure’s Requiem to work on in her private voice lesson. Her church choir director had asked her to sing it during an Easter service and she was very concerned about “breath support.”

She had been studying regularly with me for two years, was very interested in classical music and was smart and sensitive artistically.

To address her concerns, I suddenly decided to not work functionally and somatically in order to veer in another direction.  I suggested that the student listen to some great French organ works of Cesar Franck, who lived about the time of Gabriel Faure.

Why did I do that?  Where did that idea come from?  What did I hope to accomplish?

I grew up as the daughter of a full time church musician organist/choir master (Dad) and singer/voice teacher (Mom.)  Practically every day the “King of Instruments” was part of my environmental soundscape.  I also studied organ in college (while a voice major in the BM program) and spent several summers as a substitute church organist in Pittsburgh, PA. One of my brothers earned both a BM and MM degrees in Organ Performance. Growing up, we thought it hilarious to call each other names like “Crumhorn” and “Sacbutt,” which are names for organ stops which control tone quality.  Ah‐hem, yes, I know. Very organ geeky.

As a result of my background, I knew that if Mindy could hear the French reed organ pipe sounds that were developed during the Romantic era in Western Europe, played on a good pipe organ, she might be able to follow her own inner compass to execute the long vocal lines of the Faure piece. And by using her ear and musical sense, she could take what she had developed technically and apply it without my “interference.”

During the Romantic period, French organ builders introduced a type of wind chest that could accommodate high wind pressures, enabling the organ to imitate woodwind instruments like the bassoon, oboe and flute. So between the new mechanical action of the organ and the new woodwind sounds, the organ could produce lovely legato “singing.”

There is a correlation between the breath pressure needed to play the double reeds and singing legato. (I also played oboe and bassoon in middle and high school.)

Mindy “got” the connection between Cesar Franck’s “Prelude, Fugue and Variation” for organ and the vocal line of the “Pie Jesu.” She and I were both amazed at what an instant difference it made in her singing.  She automatically and effectively used what she knew to spin the long lines with more freedom and skill.

And I was humbled at how my shutting up enabled the student to learn more!!!!

(The student, M.C, recently graduated from the U of Maryland after a 5 year program in Vocal Performance and Music Education.)

Vocal Master Class #6: Volunteer Choirs

This post suggests ways to connect the dots among somatic education, functional voice training and vital singing with conducting volunteer and community choirs. Now-a-days, that often means “groups of senior singers.”

These ideas come from 19 years of working with volunteer choirs at Levine Music, a large community music school in Washington, DC, where I founded the original women’s choruses in 1996. They also come from 38 years of working as an Independent vocal clinician and with the former Washington Vocal Consortium. (1987-2012.)

Some church and school choir directors are going to say that they don’t have time to do what I suggest. It is relatively easy to get a beautiful choral sound from a select group of singers compared to obtaining a balanced and energetic choral sound from a group of non-auditioned, or marginally auditioned, volunteer senior singers!

It is possible that a conductor needs to know more about singing, and certainly more about aging voices, not less, when working with volunteer and community choruses.

What follows are many “tips,” all designed to improve your singers sound over time.  A challanging aspect of working with volunteer choirs is the systematic insistence on the exercises to “prime the pump” in order for amateur voices to free up and work mindfully and joyfully.

Somatics

Every rehearsal starts with physical exercises involving releasing, then strengthening and activating. Remind singers to only do what feels good to them. Dr. Anat Baniel, author of Move Into Life, draws connections in her psychology practice among brain health, emotional stability and movement. Beginning rehearsal with mindful movement is the foundation for music-making.

Combing through a used book store many years ago, I came across a 1974 gem-of-a-book called “Dance of the Self: Movements for Body, Mind and Spirit,” by Blanche Howard.  The illustrations alone are joyful!  Here are three examples from that book that encourage Somatic Education:

Dance of the Self

1.)  For the 7 cervical vertebrae and neck/shoulder muscles:  Explain where these vertebrae are, then model standing with “body bright.”  Count backwards, 7-6-5-4-3-2-1. and with each count slightly turn the neck to the left, imagining gently turning each vertebra to look behind you.   Keep it comfortable.   Finish that side with  slightly twisting the torso to the left, and end with one more slight neck turn.  Repeat on the right, then repeat both sides again.  Great stretch for the spine, and can be done seated if necessary.

2.) Stretch right arm straight up, try to move upper arm to as close to your right ear as you can.  Stretch through finger tips.  While continuing this stretch, stretch left hand down and straight back.  Count to 6 slowly, and continue to breathe. Lovely stretch through torso.  Switch sides.  Repeat.

3.)  Punch the air, like you are punching a punching bag, 25-50 times, depending on fitness level. Good aerobic activity and fun.

Breathing exercises–You are encouraging activation and relaxation at this point,  not “teaching them to inhale a certain way and support.” All the breathing in the world won’t help weak laryngeal function, but these exercises addresses general health and awareness.

1.) Lift arms out to the sides and ask them to feel their ribs.  Have them put their hands on their ‘bra lines,” as if you are cradling the ribs. (The men love this..) Invite them to breathe sideways into their ribs, more as a “release” after blowing their air out, not a “tanking up and lifting shoulders.”  Then ask them to exhale forcefully on BRRRRRRRRR (rasberries), pulling their abdominals in to push their chests up.  Tell them that it is the pectoral wall moving, not the flesh that is the female anatomy.  This is a breath/muscle activation exercise that can be adjusted, added to and adapted.  Many of the senior singers I used to work with in choirs were people who had lost a lot of muscle tone and coordination.

2.)  Inhale fully into ribs to a count of 4, hold the breath for the count of 6, exhale for a count of 7.  Repeat 4 times.  Helps the parasympathetic nervous system, and therefore, mental focus. This is really big, because they come in wanting to work, but chattering and visiting and bringing in all their issues right through the rehearsal room door. This exercise is like magic–after about 4 rounds, stillness descends upon the room.

3) I work constantly and happily to help unfold a more flexible and free body throughout the whole rehearsal, which means I have to embody the work myself.  With seniors, you have to gently insist on it all the time. Remind them with specifics, ALL THE TIME. See how many ways you can say the same thing and sprinkle those things throughout the lesson/rehearsal. CONSTANTLY and ALL THE TIME! DID I MENTION ALL THE TIME?

4.) Teaching seniors to hold music, by developing the relationship among the arms, T-12 and the shoulder blades is a developmental process that is very important because that related directly to the rest of their system.  And it helps them get their eyes up!

FUNCTIONAL VOICE TRAINING

For aging singers, strengthening the muscles of the larynx (that darn wobble or severe registration issues,) can’t happen without simultaneously relaxing any muscles that don’t belong in the vocal process. The relaxation part can be aided by encouraging lots of silly noises, call and response style, along with silly faces. Embody the work yourself, or it can not translate to your group! If you are a keyboard player or composer, you will have to learn to do these things if you want your group to do them.

I adapted the ‘coup de glotte’ and chest voice exercises to a single ‘UH-OH!’ done on pitches 5-1, encouraging a very slight glottal on the onset. This helps bring the vocal folds together. I divided the group into groups of 4 to do the exercise so I could hear if someone was overdoing it or not engaging enough.

Traditional vocalize and choral warm-ups were added, but only after the initial 10 minute somatics and “activation” period.  Two of their favorites “activators” were

YOU HOO HOO! (1-5-3) Head Voice

HEE-HAW (5—slide to 1)  Head to Mix (or whatever they can manage. Encourage not crashing into chest voice but get softer right before they move into chest.  This takes some awareness, developed over time.  Encourage them to try it at home.  (called “practice.”)

Arpeggios can go up staccato, and come down legato, with arm movements to simulate direction and connection.  Men didn’t like to do this much, so I asked them to move their hips in a gentle circle. They REALLY didn’t like that, so they eventually started moving their arms….I also asked men to sing in head (some call this falsetto.)  This increases over all flexibility and range over time.

I am constantly surprised and delighted by what seniors are able to accomplish but the manner of working with them is as important as what you do. Many of them are caring for adult children, grandchildren and/or their own aging spouses. Many are recovering from surgeries, still working and/or suffering from chronic conditions. Each moment needs to allow them to unfold their own possibilities.

Young conductors or singers with no health issues or responsibilities except themselves can not begin to understand how these things can take a toll on the physical body.

VITAL SINGING

The choirs that I worked with weekly followed a model of a one-half hour voices class followed by a one-hour rehearsal. The voice class was designed to also include choral warm ups and pitch patterns they would meet in the music we were to rehearse that day. I know many of you do this already–but it does take planning. The results are more than worth it in tonal quality, perception and understanding of how their part fits into the whole.

I go over words and texts very slowly and more times than you can imagine. Articulation exercises are really important. Pull out any pattern that makes the tongue move. Tongue twisters are great fun to speak as a group. Singing in unfamiliar foreign languages means that I chose a fairly repetitive text and gave LOTS of lead time to learn it before a performance.

Church choirs have special needs because they have to have music ready every week. Most directors can’t take the time for a complete warm up, so singers have to be encouraged to do so BEFORE rehearsal begins.  I teach workshops all over the DC area, showing church choirs what they can do before a rehearsal. One choir I worked with has a music teacher who sings with the group lead the specific exercises for anyone who shows up 20 minutes early.

Seniors often can not hear, and may speak loudly during rehearsals. If it is disruptive, I talk to them privately, and they can ask whoever sits on either side of them to gently put a hand on their shoulder if they start to speak or hum and are not aware of it.

Since hearing is an issue, I have to repeat myself many, many times, and SLOW MY SPEECH WAY DOWN. Sometimes I will ask, privately, if their hearing aids are in and request they carry an extra set of batteries to rehearsal.

If they claim I did not tell them something, I resist the urge to scream. I make light of it and repeat it AGAIN. I ask the person who made the claim to repeat back what he/she heard several times, smile with a twinkle in my eye, and move on. Then have a glass of wine that night.

I hope some of these ideas help and inspire you to find your own ways of working with seniors. We are at a very important time in our culture’s history, where is it time to embrace the wisdom of the aging and recognize the love, intelligence and perseverance that they all hold.  We are all made richer for these things!

Check out “Vehicular Vocalises” by The Washington Vocal Consortium.  (Dr. Kathy Price, Elizabeth Daniels, Catherine Huntress-Reeve and myself.) Medium High and Medium Low.

“A godsend for the choral singer moving from work to dinner to rehearsal.. .–The National Association of Teachers of Singing Journal of Singing review.

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The Levine  Women’s Chorus, founded and conducted by Cate Frazier-Neely.

Rehearsal–

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In Performance at The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, Washington, DC-

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Vocal Master Class #5 The Cantor Can’t

“We are all students and teachers in everything we do, and we are both at the same time”

-from Zen Guitar, by Philip Toshio Sudo

Welcome back to this series of posts for singers and voice teachers on “Functional Voice Training, Somatic Education and Vital Singing…Connecting the Dots.”

Today’s masterclass takes a slightly different form than previous posts.  In Medicinal Madness, I took issue with one college teacher’s teaching. I said that in a future post, I would describe a time when I was completely wrong about what I taught, and what I did about it. This is that post.

If you are a teacher of singing or a vocal coach, especially of professional voice users, please learn to identify the symptoms of vocal fold pathology (nodes, paresis, paralysis, etc.) and what to do and not do.

Ed  was a professional cantor in a large synagogue who came for lessons scared to death because he could no longer do his full time job as a spiritual leader in his community. His speaking voice also felt weak. He had completed studies at Hebrew Union College in NYC and had studied singing with two world-renown tenors. He had been in his current position for 23 years. When his voice started giving out, he first went to three different otolaryngologists who each told him everything was fine. Then he started investing huge sums of money in voice teachers between New York City and Washington, DC, all for not.

I was sure I could help him, sure I had “answers.” I had been successfully teaching singing for almost 20  years at that point, but was not skilled in hearing voice disorders. In my defense, I was operating on the information from the medical community. So I assumed we were not working with pathology but a lack of sound technique. Since then, and because of many other situations, I have learned to considerably narrow my scope in who I trust in the medical community when it comes to voice disorders and singing. Not all otolaryngologists who say they work with singers actually know what they are doing!

Ed and I worked together every other week, and every time there was improvement, he would come back with his voice “not working” again . We worked breath, appoggio, onsets (a la Richard Miller,) and vocal tract adjustments.  These things brought his voice back to better working order by the end of each lesson, but things just wouldn’t “hold.” If had been more of a skilled functional teacher at that point, and had more knowledge of symptoms of voice disorders, I would have had all sorts of red flags pop up in the first lesson and could have helped him get to a more reputable set of doctors and therapists.

The work was hard and hard on his psyche. After about 9 months, which was longer than he had spent with any of the other voice teachers he had tried, Ed gave up. He got permission from his congregation to switch to solely teaching religious education. Finally, when his condition, a very gradual onset of spasmodic dysphonia, was diagnosed, he was so relieved he wept. And I felt foolish and was deeply humbled. This was before the highly publicized case of Diane Rehm, the radio show host who developed the condition.

I refunded Ed 3 months worth of voice lessons, which is all I could afford to do. I also wrote him a letter, promising him I would learn from my experience with him and apologizing for my ignorance.

Certainly no one in the medical or voice teaching community works like this. If you know of someone in either field who refunds money when they screw up, please let me know!

One well-known teacher in Washington, DC, who has come up with her own method after much scientific research, told Ed he was lazy and wasn’t practicing, because her method was “fool-proof.” Honestly? This is something you say to a professional singer? And what pains me about this is that her method is sound. It is her attitude that baffles me.

Why are we teachers so vested in being ‘right’ that we can not see or hear when we are not helping someone? Read Seven Lessons for Voice Teachers.

After I sent Ed a partial refund, he sent me a package containing two blue crystal goblets and a note of thanks for our time together. What an incredibly generous gesture!

Thank you, Ed, for showing me where I needed to learn much, much more.

If you are interested in reading about the symptoms of vocal fold paresis and paralysis, there is a series on my blog HERE.  Scroll down to “My Journey Through Vocal Fold Paralysis.”

Accompanying art by Louise

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